There is a multitude of evidence touting the importance and impact of sports-based youth development. There are obvious health benefits including cardiovascular fitness, physical development, weight management, neuromuscular control, skill building and stress relief. In South Florida for instance, over 90% of our regularly attending students show improvement in cardiovascular fitness through pre-program, mid-year and post program assessments.
Besides obvious health benefits, there are social and emotional benefits, which are much more difficult to measure and track. For instance, “Superfest,” our free family health and wellness day with sports tournaments and community resource information, gives hundreds of young men and women from different neighborhoods and backgrounds come together. The students see that they are part of something bigger than they may have realized, as they develop camaraderie and demonstrate respect through the various tournaments.
There is a misconception that sports-based youth development, while effective, remains a predominantly male arena. Despite female sports activity being at an all-time high, this stigma impacts female participation and creates negative stereotypes. True sports-based youth development activities has nothing to do with gender, but rather, with interests based upon personal skill sets. If you step back and think of these sport activities as an on-going project rather than “just a game”, it can be dissected into distinct parts that include many other skills, which we’ve seen increases participation across the board.
So, what does this on-going project look like if we are talking about, say, basketball? It starts with identifying individual skills and talents, organizing a working team, and setting roles and setting goals that define individual and group successes. The skills and talents identified should not be all related to an ability to shoot, dribble and pass. Leadership, arts, public speaking, writing, technology, math, and deductive reasoning are just a few of the key traits we seek out. To turn basketball into a real work project, we look at everything around the sport. Team roles therefore include statisticians, announcers, camera operators, interviewers, recap writers/editors, guards, forwards, centers, coaches, and assistant coaches. The team goal is to start everyone in their most comfortable role and then rotate them through the cycle, at least once, so they understand comprehensively what it takes to produce a quality basketball program. The participants can subsequently identify what they love most and what they would also like to learn more about. Individual goals should be based upon the categories each student selects, fundamentally building on their strengths and further developing interests where there may be deficiencies. This is the true reach of sports-based youth development.
As humans, we have a desire to be a part of something, to find a sense of belonging. We may find it in a job, reading club, video game community, place of worship, team, or after school program. I don’t profess to know why, but despite these other highly effective opportunities for finding a sense of belonging, there is something unique that happens when the need to be a part of something is intertwined with competition. It ignites intense motivation and strong passion. In fact, the bond is so strong that it doesn’t matter whether a person is an active participant of the sport or just an observant fan. If this competitive aspect of sports can be utilized to better our children’s holistic development, I say, let’s all keeping playing…